Newsom’s vow to reopen California is a high-stakes political gamble

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the press during a visit to Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Alameda on March 16, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom is running two races this spring: The first is to clobber the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 60,000 Californians and devastated businesses and schools with unprecedented restrictions. The second is to keep his job, which could be threatened by a recall election later this year. 

The two paths intersected today as Newsom announced plans to fully reopen California businesses on June 15 — if hospitalization rates remain low and the state has enough vaccines to inoculate all Californians who want a shot. 

“We’re seeing death rates… go down. We’re seeing case rates stabilize. We have the lowest case rates in the United States of America,” Newsom said during a press conference in San Francisco. “On June 15, all things being equal, if we continue that good work… we’ll be opening up this economy (for) business as usual.” 

At first blush, the political benefit seems obvious: The campaign attempting to throw Newsom out of office is fueled, in part, by anger over his decisions to close businesses, schools and churches amid the pandemic. His announcement that the state is planning to fully reopen could quell frustration and take some wind out of the recall campaign’s sails. The June 15 reopening happens to fall during a period when voters can remove their names from the recall petitions if they changed their minds.

But it’s not all upside. Newsom’s bold pronouncement about what he’ll do two months down the line — while infections are rising in other parts of the country, highly contagious coronavirus variants are spreading and the state says only 23% of Californians are fully vaccinated — also comes with a dose of political danger. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles on April 1, 2021. (Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters)

“It’s a really risky decision, but with a high percentage of success,” said Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“The risk is that the fourth wave may hit California, he’s going to have to backtrack, reinstitute some of the restrictions, and then it will reinforce the whole rationale for the recall.”

The effort to oust the Democratic governor began before the year-long pandemic upended life in California. It was driven by conservative activists who oppose Newsom’s progressive stances on immigration, gun control and criminal justice. But the pandemic gave their campaign a massive shot of momentum, as many Californians got fed up with the state’s constantly shifting restrictions — and a judge ruled that recall supporters could have more time to gather signatures because of last year’s stay-at-home order. 

So the course of the pandemic and the course of the recall have become intertwined, making it impossible to separate whether Newsom’s decisions about one are driven by the other. A poll last week found that 56% of Californians would vote against the recall — enough for Newsom to keep his job. But polls capture the mood at a specific moment in time and public opinion could change depending on how the state recovers from the pandemic. 

“You cannot help but see every decision that is made in the sense of the recall,” Guerra said. “The pandemic determines the fact that we have the recall, and how the recall is going to play out.”

Though Newsom has been projecting optimism about the end of the pandemic for several weeks, today’s announcement was a big move that seemed to go beyond what he previously forecast. Last month, Newsom said he’d speed up business reopenings — but didn’t promise a full-scale reopening — after 4 million vaccine doses had been administered in the state’s hardest-hit communities. The state hit that number today, he said, allowing him to set the June 15 goal.  

Newsom said he’s monitoring the spread of variants, and that his decision to reopen is based on California’s low case rates and an expectation of sufficient supply of vaccines. A prominent epidemiologist said Newsom’s plan is prudent, and the president of the California Chamber of Commerce said it “is especially welcome news as we enter California’s peak tourism and recreation season.”

But supporters of the recall campaign cast it as a purely political move that still falls short of what Californians need.

Recall Newsom volunteer Pat Miller makes a sign during a petition signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

“Gavin Newsom is making a political football out of reopening California; don’t be surprised when he moves the goalposts,” tweeted John Cox, the Republican businessman who lost to Newsom in 2018 and is running against him if the recall qualifies for the ballot.

Another GOP challenger, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said in a statement that “Newsom has shown that he’s only motivated by his own political survival, not doing what’s best for Californians.” 

“If he truly wanted to help families across this state, he would reopen all public schools for in-person learning now.”

Even with the low rates of infection, California lags the rest of the nation in the portion of kids who attend school in-person. And while many schools in the state have begun to reopen this spring, they’re generally on hybrid schedules that only allow kids on campus for a few hours a week — making it difficult for many parents to work. 

“The economy cannot reopen without schools fully and safely reopening as well, otherwise working parents, especially working mothers, will be left behind,” said a statement from Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, which represents the state’s largest companies.

“The schools must be a full partner in creating an equitable recovery and reopening, allowing all working families the opportunity to get back to work.”

Newsom said it’s his “expectation” that schools will fully reopen after June 15 and vowed that there will be “no barrier to having our kids back in in-person instruction.” But he did not commit to requiring that schools offer normal full-time schedules this fall — highlighting another political liability if the recall campaign is in full swing during back-to-school season and families are still scrambling to accommodate part-time class schedules and Zoom lessons from home. 

CalMatters reporter Ben Christopher contributed to this story.

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